After dipping gingerly into the differences between Sunni and Shi’ite Islam, Santorum concluded that Iran poses the greatest threat to the United States. In previous centuries, he explained, Shi’ite regimes had been at peace with the West [bold mine-DL]. But ever since Khomeini re-interpreted that tradition of Islam, Iran had been radicalized. “And so now we have Iran in a position to project power and to use Sunni-like theology, if you willâ€¦” he lowered his voice, “to conquer the world.”
After those last four words, you expect a laugh track to kick in, but it never comes [bold mine-DL]. Instead, the speech grinds on as Santorum warns of the “gathering storm” and draws parallels between our time and the late 1930s and early ’40s. Warning that America will face an array of exotic threats alone, Santorum begins to quote the June 1940 address of Winston Churchill to the British people in which the prime minister girded them for the coming battle of Britain. In the audio recording sold by Focus on the Family, as Santorum’s voice solemnly quiets, the ghostly crackle of Churchill’s original rises. Santorum closes by explaining that defeat means to “sink into the abyss of a new dark age.” Dobson emerges to speculate that this may be some of “the most prophetic work” his ministry has brought to its audience, saying, “Rick Santorum gets it. He may have been the finest senator we have had in many decades. He is part of the heritage of Winston Churchill.”
This bit about “Shi’ite regimes” being at peace with “the West” is curious, since it is not a very meaningful statement. “Shi’ite regimes” in the early modern and modern period have been limited to the Zaydi imamate in Yemen (overthrown in 1962), the Safavids in Iran, the Qajars in pre-constitutional Iran, and (if you want to be generous in how you define the phrase) the interrupted rule of the Pahlavis in post-1920s Iran. Except for the Zaydis and Safavids, who had fairly limited contact with the West, these regimes were at peace, or rather they were often under the thumb, of Western powers for all that time. In any case, it was in the strategic interest of pre-WWI Iran to be friendly to European powers, since many of the Europeans shared with Iran a common enemy in the Ottomans. Iran then effectively became a client of the British and Americans during WWII and afterwards until 1979, despite the brief attempt of the elected Iranian government to say differently.
The point is simply that there is nothing inherently more peaceable or pro-Western about pre-radicalised Iranian Shi’ism or Shi’ism generally, but it is rather the relative distance and/or weakness of Iranian rulers in relation to the West that has determined the nature of the relationship. Indeed, most pro-American regimes in the Near and Middle East are either nominally or are very seriously Sunni (which should apparently, by Santorum’s reckoning, make them more dangerous). Meanwhile, one of the typically most pro-American populations is that of Iran, which might suggest that Khomeini’s radicalism did not sink in very deeply among most Iranians (thus casting some doubt, if any needed to be cast, on the world-conquering aspirations of the Iranians). It would also suggest that it is the regime that determines hostility or good relations, and perhaps also that the sectarian affiliation of the regime may matter less in understanding its practical interests and goals. In other words, don’t expect them to try to usher in the coming of the Mahdi, but focus instead on concrete strategic interests. Santorum unfortunately badly fails here.
One of the most telling parts of Michael’s article is this line:
According to Santorum, the West must witness to Muslims, not for Christ but for Modernity.
It is important to remember the historic clash between Islam and Christendom, certainly, but it seems to me that an evangelising modernism of this kind is bound to fail. The Islamic world already has modernised after a fashion, but the results have not been what apostles of Modernity would have expected or desired. The character of modernisation, like that of a reformation, depends on the nature of the original thing being changed.
Obviously, I regard Santorum’s obsession with Venezuela as bizarre, and his animosity towards Russia is lamentable and depressing. More troubling is the degree to which Santorum personally embodies the horrible contradictions and compromises of what Joseph Bottum dubbed the “new fusionism.” Not being a terribly great fan of the original, I was not very enthusiastic about the new version of fusionism, since I saw in it the inevitable marginalisation of social conservative concerns and the primacy of aggressive, militaristic foreign policy in the name of “moral clarity.” This new fusionism was exactly what Santorum is now peddling: it is a fusion of, in Michael’s words, “neoconservative foreign policy and traditionalist social policy.” It is an unholy alliance, if ever there was one. The most troubling thing about Rick Santorum is that I think he is entirely in earnest and personally quite a decent man, which makes his support for these policy views all the more discordant and harder to understand.